Penman No. 272: A Poet of Nature

Junyee

Penman for Monday, October 9, 2017

 

 

IT’S NATIONAL Artist season again, with the deadline for nominations for the next group of NAs falling last September 30. It’s a triennial exercise that raises some very fundamental questions about how the arts figure in our national life and consciousness, and what we value in art.

There’ll surely be an impressive roster of nominees to review, each name with its own merits to recommend it. But among all those presumptive candidates, the one I’ll be rooting for is a lanky, genial, youthful-looking septuagenarian who goes simply by the name “Junyee,” short for the Luis E. Yee, Jr. that only his family and closest friends probably know.

I’ve known Junyee and his work for some time now, but I was even more impressed by its breadth and quality as I listened to him address a large crowd that had gathered for the launch of his artistic biography Wood Things at the CCP lobby last Tuesday.

Like many artists, Junyee has a certain shyness about him that prevents more aggressive self-advertisement, so let me sing his praises for him in the hope that he finally gets the recognition due his lifetime of labors.

If you’ve never met him but read the book (written with grace and deep insight by the equally gifted artist Jose “Bogie” Tence Ruiz), the first thing that will strike you will be the life itself, the engrossing narrative of how a boy born in the hinterlands of northern Mindanao at the height of the Japanese Occupation nurtured a native talent that would, much later in life, see his works celebrated in France, Cuba, Israel, Japan, and Australia, among other cultural capitals.

The boy drew his first inspirations from the bales of scrap paper his father imported to use as wrappers in their general store, bundles that contained American and local comics depicting worlds far removed from Agusan del Norte. Later moving to Cebu, he found a job with a funeral parlor, first as a janitor and a clerk, then as a beautician for corpses, and later as an embalmer, all the while ogling the art supplies in the local department store, never yielding his dream.

In 1964, he received a scholarship to study Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines, and apprenticed with the renowned sculptor and later National Artist Napoleon “Billy” Abueva. The opportunity opened Junyee’s eyes to a whole new world of modernism, and eventually he broke out on his own, even as the prevailing forces of the 1970s—the psychotropic seductions of Carlos Castañeda on the one hand and the First Quarter Storm on the other—pulled him in different directions. While Junyee held progressive sentiments, Tence Ruiz notes that “He was inherently a maverick individualist who, while recognizing the need for collective actions to affect change, saw how formulaic and uncreative propaganda could get.”

WoodThings.png

And that’s key to the kind of visionary and yet also political art Junyee would produce over the next four decades—an art that manifests an abiding love of life, and of nature as the bringer of that life. In his preface to the book, artist Hugo Yonzon III writes that “The dominant and recurring theme of his installation is nature or, more precisely, the respect for it. There is none of the theatrics of LED lights or the electronic sounds that characterize such art especially in the Western world. A twig, a pod, a tree bark, local hemp, and then some. Period.”

“Installation” is a word that would inextricably be attached to Junyee’s art, as he explored and promoted the genre well before the term itself became fashionable, always and again drawing on nature for his materials and inspiration, from the seminal Balag of 1970 to the installations now dotting the campuses of Diliman and Los Baños, in which latter place he has found his literal and spiritual home, amid the trees and rocks that he never sees just as objects but as bearers of messages, like the 10,000 tombstone-like stumps of wood he laid out on the CCP grounds in 2007 to bemoan illegal logging and the catastrophic flooding it induced.

Junyee is a master sculptor and painter, and a wordsmith as well—his sensitive lyrics add a more personal touch to the book—but he is, ultimately, a poet of nature, who can make wood and stone speak and sing in joy, sorrow, and just the sheer excitement of living.

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Speaking of artists, let me draw your attention to a younger painter in mid-career by the name of Lotsu Manes, whose seventh one-man exhibit titled “Handumanay” (after the Visayan word for keepsake or memorial) is now running at the Eskinita Gallery on the 2nd floor of Makati Cinema Square until October 23.

We’d known Lotsu since he was a small boy running on the beach of our hometown in Alcantara, Romblon, and took notice when he won the Grand Prize in the Shell Art Competition of 1996. “Handumanay” shows him maturing well beyond the meticulous craftsmanship that distinguished his earlier work to a more conceptual understanding of time and memory, and of the preciousness of what remains in his termite-ravaged portraits and landscapes.

At the opening, I was also glad to speak with curator and sculptor Renato “Ato” Habulan, who has been mentoring younger artists like Lotsu toward a less technical and more philosophical appreciation of their own work and vision.

Seeing Lotsu in his prime, chatting with Ato Habulan, and applauding Junyee at his book launch all left me warmly reassured that—even and especially in these terror-stricken times—art, like music as the poet Congreve put it, “hath charms to soothe the savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend the knotted oak.”

Penman No. 103: Too Much Drama

Penman for Monday, June 30, 2014

IN MY other life as a dramatist, which came to an end some years ago, I wrote about a dozen plays for the stage and more than twice as many television plays and screenplays, mostly for the late Lino Brocka. Lino and I happily turned out double-hanky tearjerkers with such rousingly commercial titles (which someone presumably from the marketing department thought up) as Kailan Mahuhugasan ang Kasalanan, Ano ang Kulay ng Mukha ng Diyos, Maging Akin Ka Lamang, Miguelito, ang Batang Rebelde, and my very first one, back in 1977, Tahan Na, Empoy, Tahan.

I may have stopped writing drama to focus on fiction and nonfiction, but now and then the old skills get a workout. I’ve always said that there’s no better training for a writer of fiction than to have been a playwright, because playwriting teaches dramatic economy—how to set up a scene, how to get the most out of your characters, how to use dialogue effectively (meaning, at its most complex, how to get your characters to say things they don’t mean, or to mean things they can’t say).

Last week, I said as much again to a group of writers and program analysts from a TV network who wanted to see how writers think. I told them that drama’s to be found not only in filmscripts or on the set—it’s all around us, taking place quietly in some fastfood joint or some bus stop or some hospital ward; the writer’s task is to see that drama, to palpate it from the tedium of everyday life, and to sharpen and brighten its edges so others can see the extraordinary in otherwise ordinary moments.

We’ll save the rest of the drama lesson for another day; I bring this up only to establish my bona fides when it comes to talking about drama, and about my thesis today, which is that—even for a writer of melodrama, for which I make no excuses—there seems to be entirely too much drama around us these days, or theater if you will. (There’s a subtle difference, if you think of drama as the situation and of theater as its enactment on some kind of stage.)

Case in point: I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s sick not only of Senator Bong Revilla’s whinings about the heat in his room at the “custodial center” (it’s not even a real prison, for Pete’s sake), but also of how the media has fussed over it like it was a real news story (“Can Congresswoman Lani make it back from Greenhills in 15 minutes with the air cooler? That’s all the time she has before visiting hours end!” said one radio reporter breathlessly.) My totally un-PC prescription? Give him the fan, give him whatever creature comfort he wants, but reduce his cell to about a third of its size and keep that one window, from which I hope he sees a mall, or something with lots of people and traffic in it. There’s no better reminder of what prison means than limited space and movement, no matter what you may have with you. (I remember watching a Marlboro neon sign blink at me on the far side of martial law prison, back in 1973; that was torture.)

Senator Jinggoy Estrada’s departure for the custodial center was only slightly less theatrical, thanks again to the media who couldn’t get enough of the father-and-son story being played out in all of its bitter if obvious irony. Of course we expected the family to bond around Jinggoy, and for tears to be shed; that’s any family’s natural privilege, and its natural response. Indeed what underwhelmed me, from my dramatist’s standpoint, was how predictable everything was from start to finish, especially the inevitable “Mayor Erap, ano’ng nararamdaman ninyo sa pagkakakulong ng inyong anak?” I wanted to scream, “E ano pa?”

I can just see the video highlights from these staged “surrenders” figuring in these politicos’ next campaigns: the prayers in church, the mug shots, the hugs and waves from distraught spouses, parents, and kids; the cell doors closing, as the music goes up and under, before we hear a murmured voice-over: “May bukas pa….”

Case in point Number 2: Sometimes silence is drama; when your wife refuses to explain why she doesn’t want to talk to you, that’s drama. When the Palace refuses to explain why it dropped Nora Aunor from the list of National Artist awardees, that’s drama. All President Noynoy’s spokesmen could say was “It’s the President’s prerogative….”, which is exactly what we heard from President Gloria’s spokesmen a few years ago, the only difference being that she made dagdag, while Noynoy made bawas. I did read something about Nora’s exclusion being “in the national interest,” but it boggles the mind to figure out exactly what that means. I can understand defending the Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal as being “in the national interest”; I can even understand rooting for Manny Pacquiao on fight day—temporarily setting all his other quirks and antics aside—as being “in the national interest.” But dropping Nora?

As I wrote in this corner a few months ago, I was on a large, multidisciplinary, second-level committee that endorsed Nora Aunor to a higher body (the NCCA and CCP Boards plus the National Artists); we endorsed Dolphy as well, and if I remember right, he and Nora got the same highest votes across the board. Granted that our recommendations were just that and subject to final approval upstairs, I feel among many others in the arts that we at least deserve a full and cogent explanation for all these pluses and minuses that take place in Malacañang. The Palace—and I don’t mean just the present occupant—has never been known to be a bulwark of artistic support and sensibility, if you look at funding for the arts in relation to everything else; if it never cared for or about the arts, why should it suddenly care—negatively at that—about Nora Aunor, whom the arts community clearly feels is deserving of its highest accolade? If you can’t help, at least don’t get in the way.

I’d been told by some Palace contacts that questions came up about Nora’s alleged drug use. OK, I said, it’s fair enough to raise these questions which presumably involve moral turpitude. But since when has it been fair to use morality as a standard for artistic excellence? We’ve had National Artists whose personal lives were hardly spotless, but whose art precisely may have been deepened and enriched by those encounters with their darker side. (Conversely, we’ve had National Artists who may present themselves as moral exemplars and accuse everyone else of some fatal shortcoming, but whose work is unremittingly mediocre and soporific.) Edgar Allan Poe, Salvador Dali, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Miles Davis, among many others, would never qualify for state honors in their countries (not that they ever cared) if our Malacañang’s standards were employed.

Last case in point: I wholeheartedly agreed with the NCCA when it protested the Palace snub of Ms. Aunor, but also wholeheartedly disagreed with the NCCA when it reportedly protested allowing the use of our national heroes’ names for such popular products as beer. (Think “Cerveza Rizal” or “Mabini Beer.”) The reason given by objectors was that it would be a sign of disrespect for these heroes to associate something as morally undesirable as alcohol with them.

Really? Which planet are we on? Didn’t our heroes drink beer and stiffer forms of alcohol—in spite (or dare I say because) of which they performed heroic deeds, anyway? Rizal complained that his fellow ilustrados in Spain drank and womanized too much, but that hardly meant that he was completely abstemious in either department. He didn’t care much for hard liquor, but drank beer (like me, on whom single malt would be a total waste). George Washington was a beer guy as well, and even famously left a handwritten recipe for his own brew (later marketed in an “Ales of the Revolution” line). So will the moral police please lighten up? If Nora’s good enough to be a National Artist, then Jose Rizal should be good enough to go on a beer bottle, and I’ll hoist many a cold Rizal in his own honor.

Heroes aren’t heroes because they’re perfect human beings; they’re heroes because—despite some truly terrible character flaws and peccadilloes (one of them even shot his wife, remember?)—they left something indelible to the national spirit and imagination, enough for us to think of ourselves as a nation. Heroes and National Artists (the real ones and the best ones) can do that; politicians—whether in prison or in the Palace—can’t.

Penman No. 88: Whatever Happened to the New NAs?

Penman for Monday, March 3, 2014

I GOT a series of messages from a fellow member of the Philippine Macintosh Users Group a few weeks ago, but it had nothing to do with Macs or computers; of all things, it had to do with the actress Nora Aunor and the National Artist Award. I thought it was interesting and compelling enough to take up in this corner, since I’d been wondering about some of the same things myself.

Before I go one line further, let me say that I was a member of a fairly large lower-level committee that was part of the recent selection process for the National Artist Awards. I signed a non-disclosure agreement when I joined that committee, so nothing I say here will be emanating from our discussions in that committee, which will remain confidential.

What’s no longer a secret, since it’s emerged from other sources online, is that a number of people, including Nora Villamayor (aka Nora Aunor), have been recommended for recognition as National Artists. The recommendations of our committee went up to yet another committee or council for final evaluation, before being forwarded to the Office of the President for proclamation, prior to the conferment of the awards themselves.

So far, so good. The prescribed process was rigorously respected and followed by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, which oversees it (the board of the Cultural Center of the Philippines weighs in, I believe, at the last stage prior to sending the final list off to Malacañang). This was of keen interest to many Filipino artists and the cultural community—not just the names of the prospective NAs, but even more importantly, the process itself—given how the Palace, in the past and most recently in 2009, had cavalierly disregarded the rules and common decency to hand out the award to its favorites.

It’s been half a year, however, since that final list reached the OP—and so far, that’s where it’s been, gathering dust and gathering rumor. The loudest of these rumors has it that Nora’s run-ins with the law—presumably a question of morals—have held up her proclamation, as well as that of the others in her batch, and those before them. (Let’s not forget that, as a result of the infamous dagdag-bawas that happened under GMA, the proclamation of legitimately nominated National Artists such as the late Federico Aguilar Alcuaz and Lazaro Francisco—not to mention that of the eminent musician Ramon Santos, who was unceremoniously dropped to make way for others far less qualified—was indefinitely postponed.) Another bit of speculation has it that the Palace was betting on the late Dolphy, rather than Nora, to make it through the selection process, and that if Dolphy’s not getting it, then neither will Nora.

That will be a very sad and silly thing to do, if there’s any truth to the scuttlebutt. I respect and admire the work of both Nora Aunor and Dolphy, and myself would like to see them both recognized as NAs. I’ve even had the pleasure and the privilege of writing a couple of filmscripts for Nora (among them, “Ina Ka ng Anak Mo”) and of writing a back-cover blurb for Dolphy’s searingly excellent autobiography, released shortly before his death.

But if Dolphy—the comic genius, but also easily the popular and sentimental choice—was indeed excluded for whatever reason from the final list of recommendees this time, penalizing Nora with a similar rejection isn’t going to make things right. Instead, I’d be the first to sign on to a new campaign to endorse Dolphy in the next round of selections. Employing a moral argument is just going to make things worse, by introducing a spurious element into the issue. The religious conservatives won’t like it, but the plain fact is that artistic excellence and personal morality have never made a necessary if a happy marriage; let’s not ask of our finest artists what we don’t and can’t demand of our national heroes.

Early last month, my PhilMUG friend Don Rapadas wrote NCCA Chairman Felipe de Leon, Jr. a letter to inquire about the case, and he gave me his permission to quote from that letter:

“I am Zandro G. Rapadas of the Nora Aunor for National Artist Movement, and it is my privilege to write to you and thank you for the honor you bestowed on Ms. Nora C. Villamayor at the 6th Ani ng Dangal Awards held last Sunday, February 2. It was a well-appreciated and regarded state recognition for the international honors that Ms. Villamayor brought to the country in 2013, particularly for her Best Actress wins at the 7th Asian Film Awards in Hong Kong, and at the 3rd Sakhalin International Film Festival in Russia.

“With all her achievements to date locally and abroad, there is no doubt that Nora C. Villamayor’s time has come to be officially recognized and honored as a National Artist, hence our official nomination of her to the Order of National Artists in November 2012….

“The media and the public have known of the six artists endorsed for confirmation, proclamation, and conferment by Malacañang since early October last year, and we welcomed it with much rejoicing, because a new set of National Artists means the restoration of trust and respect for this state honor, which was unfortunately tarnished with the 2009 controversy involving artists added by Malacañang for proclamation and conferment.

“We believe it was fair enough to make this information known to the public because the decision by the Joint Boards of the CCP and NCCA has already been made and submitted to Malacañang, and what follows should be transparency in the final stage of the process and, on the part of the public, vigilance to help ensure that the transgressions of 2009 will remain a thing of the past. After all, this is a state honor, and the institutions involved operate on public funds, hence the public interest. Moreover, the deciding officials are public officials, and a ‘public office is a public trust.’ Certainly, no one can take us to task for being watchful this time.

“And watchful we have been. We know that after the Honors Committee convened to discuss the endorsement, they went back to your office and requested you to comment on issues raised about morality and past legal cases against Ms. Villamayor, your candidate for National Artist for Film and Broadcast Arts. And we understand that the NCCA has informed Malacañang that it does not take issue with the points raised, and that the Office of the Executive Secretary, who chairs the Honors Committee, has acknowledged receiving this reply early in January this year, and was passed on to the Malacañang Protocol Office for the information of other members of the Honors Committee. Since then and up until last Tuesday, February 4, the latest tracking of its status notes that it’s still with the Protocol Office.

“Why it’s taken this long, we do not know and we do not understand. But what we do know is that out there in the print and social media recently, many are already wondering what’s keeping the Palace from officially proclaiming the new set of National Artists. And included in this anxious waiting are some questions on why the NCCA and CCP have kept mum on the matter. I have attached in this email correspondence a few of these expressions of concern against the long wait.

“On a final note, I wish to underscore that this is not just about our anxious waiting for Nora C. Villamayor’s own cause, but more importantly our desire to see that the original dignity of the National Artist honor is restored with full respect and regard for its original intent and purpose, despite it being subject to political prerogative.”

Don Rapadas’ last point is an important one to note—this is as much about the process as the person. February, our National Arts Month, would have been the perfect time to honor our new National Artists—including the rightful ones from the previous batch; let’s not wait another year to make these long-overdue amends to Philippine culture’s overlooked heroes, and let’s hope Don gets his answer soon. 

(Photo from philstar.com)